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To kneel or not to kneel

Fr. Lou DelFra | Thursday, October 1, 2009

Presiding at Notre Dame Masses around campus these days has become a study in group dynamics, and sometimes group gymnastics. I am referring to the differing approaches to kneeling, standing, bowing and other liturgical postures and gestures at Mass. My words here do not seek to contribute to the debate surrounding “Who’s right and who’s wrong?” but rather, in reflection of last Sunday’s Gospel, to offer a word of caution to both “sides.” (It is a bit painful to mention “sides” when talking about a group who is celebrating the Eucharist together.)

In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus’ apostles come running to Jesus, distressed that they just witnessed someone driving out demons in Jesus’ name, though this person was not “one of us” – i.e., part of their group of disciples. If Jesus ever had a moment when it would have been important for him to “control his message,” it would surely have been now – at the very beginning of his ministry, as this nascent “Christian movement” was just beginning to take shape. Yet Jesus, not for the first time, exhibits a striking restraint from control here. The right word might be “liberality” in its technical sense but has become impossible to use in a politics-neutral discussion. However, perhaps it might be said that Jesus’ “liberality” in this situation is used precisely to “conserve” a guideline about how his message and mission can spread most authentically. And what is that guideline?

It is important to note that Jesus does not lapse into any kind of relativism on this, or any other, occasion. His message is clearly not, “Let him do whatever he wants to; as long as he’s helping people, it really doesn’t matter.” Rather, he is quite explicit about what authorizes this renegade demon-driver: “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me.” Jesus displays his rather surprising comfort with the un-named exorcist precisely because he was casting out demons “in my name.” A living, authentic relationship with the person of Jesus – and the authenticity of this person’s faith seems to be confirmed by his power over evil – is the authorizing credential for discipleship.

As a presider at Mass, the disparate postures of the congregation at various times in the liturgy are unavoidably noticeable. Arguments proliferate about the importance of the reverence of kneeling, the union of standing, how far one ought to bow before receiving the Eucharist, whether one should genuflect before receiving the Eucharist. The “General Instruction of the Roman Missile” (GIRM) has plenty to say here, from preferring postures that “contribute to making the entire celebration resplendent with beauty” to fostering practices that “serve the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice.”

The GIRM includes rules about both the preferred postures at different parts of the Mass, including kneeling during the Communion Rite. However, it also leaves room for variation in certain situations, including, it would seem, appropriate postures for chapels without kneelers. So, as with the disciples in last Sunday’s Gospel, we encounter an instance of some ambiguity.

Still, the words of Christ in Sunday’s Gospel and the teachings of the GIRM – Scripture and Tradition – converge quite conspicuously in guiding the attitude we are to extend to one another as we live out our Christian lives as authentically as we can, particularly at the Eucharist, which forms us as the People of God: “In the celebration of Mass the faithful form a holy people, a people whom God has made his own… They should endeavor to make this clear by their deep religious sense and their charity towards brothers and sisters who participate with them in the same celebration. Thus, they are to shun any appearance of individualism or division, keeping before their eyes that they have only one Father in heaven and accordingly are all brothers and sisters to each other.”

I must admit, the differing postures and gestures, as noticeably disparate as they sometimes are, are not what attune my attention the most when celebrating Mass. Rather, it is – sadly – the looks I often see – from one kneeling to one standing, or from one standing to one kneeling. At their most benign, they are looks of curiosity. More frequently, they are looks of confusion and sudden self-consciousness. On some occasions, they are looks of contempt and judgment. None of these seem particularly desirable during a time of worship, especially of communal worship, and especially at the Eucharist.

Last Sunday’s Gospel was not about postures we ought or ought not to assume at Mass. But the Gospel does seem to assert – rather provocatively – that an authentic relationship to Jesus Christ – an authenticity confirmed both by word and by the quality and power of a disciple’s Christian witness (“one who performs a mighty deed in my name”) – is the primary guiding principle of discipleship, not membership to a particular clique of disciples. While the Gospel doesn’t solve our practical problem of what postures and gestures we should or should not perform, it does make very clear an admonition not to cast judgment on others who are living out an authentic Christian faith, and indeed, to enter into “Communion” with them.

This week’s Faith Point is written by Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC. Fr. Lou is the director of the Bible Studies and the ACE Chaplain. He can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.